“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
-Senator John McCain, Faith of Our Fathers
After a devastating ordeal as a POW in Vietnam, John McCain launched a political career, winning election to the U.S. Senate from Arizona for the first time in 1986. To his war-hero status, McCain added a reputation as a tough-talking, maverick politician unafraid to break ranks with the Republican Party on major issues like campaign finance and immigration reform. After a hard-fought primary battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, McCain became the party’s standard-bearer in 2008, but lost in the general election to Barack Obama.
McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 2017 and had assumed a reduced role in the Senate since his diagnosis. He died Saturday, August 25, 2018 at age 81, four days before his 82nd birthday.
The Young McCain
The son and grandson of four-star admirals in the U.S. Navy, John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936, in the Panama Canal Zone. After a childhood and adolescence spent moving between different naval bases, he followed his forebears’ footsteps to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1958.
As a volunteer for combat duty during the Vietnam War, McCain served as a ground-attack pilot, flying low-altitude bombing runs on the North Vietnamese. In July 1967, he narrowly escaped death while sitting in his jet aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin. A rocket from another aircraft accidentally fired, striking a nearby plane and starting a blaze that would kill 134 sailors.
Ordeal in Vietnam
On October 26, 1967, McCain was flying his 23rd mission when enemy forces shot down his plane over Hanoi. Forced to eject, McCain landed in a lake, breaking both of his arms and one leg. Beaten severely by his North Vietnamese captors, he was soon transferred to the notorious Hoa Loa prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” McCain would spend five grueling years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, enduring repeated bouts of torture and long periods of solitary confinement.
In mid-1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson made McCain’s father, John S. McCain Jr., commander-in-chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, including all forces in the Vietnam theater. Once his captors learned who his father was, they offered to release the younger McCain as a propaganda ploy. But he refused to violate the military code of conduct, insisting they would have to let go every American POW captured before him before he would accept his own release.
McCain finally came home in March 1973, soon after a ceasefire ended the conflict in Vietnam. His injuries, and the beatings he withstood in captivity, had left him unable to raise his arms above his head. Upon his return to the United States, he received a hero’s welcome, and was awarded military honors including the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross and Prisoner of War Medal.
“Three things kept me going,” McCain told People magazine in a 1992 interview, speaking of his ordeal in Vietnam. “Faith in God, faith in my fellow prisoners and faith in my country.”
Launching a Political Career
In 1977, McCain became the navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, a position he later credited with beginning his career of public service. He left the post and retired from the U.S. Navy in 1981. After his first marriage, to Carol (Shepp) McCain, ended in divorce in 1980, McCain married Cindy Lou Hensley, a teacher and sole heiress to a large Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in Arizona. McCain had adopted the two sons of his first wife, Doug and Andy; he and Cindy had three children together—Meghan, Jack and Jimmy—and adopted another daughter, Bridget.
After relocating to Cindy’s home state, McCain ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, and was elected to represent Arizona’s 1st District in 1982. Four years later, he won the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring senator and former Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. In 1988, McCain delivered a well-received speech at the Republican National Convention.
Early Career in the Senate
After just a few years in the Senate, McCain found himself embroiled in one of the most notorious savings-and-loans scandals of the late 1980s, thanks to his connection with Charles Keating Jr., owner of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, California. Federal regulators seized control of Keating’s company and other assets in 1989, and later filed a $1.1 billion civil racketeering lawsuit against the banker and financier.
One of a group of senators known as the “Keating Five,” McCain was accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Keating, who had been a large contributor to his senatorial campaign. In 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared McCain of wrongdoing, but concluded that he had exercised poor judgment.
In the wake of the Keating scandal, McCain emerged as a leading Senate champion of campaign finance reform. Teaming up with his liberal Democratic colleague Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, he fought for seven years to see the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act—which prohibited large contributions by individuals and corporations to national party committees—finally become law in 2002.
In 2000, a year after published his bestselling autobiography “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain lost a hard-fought battle for the Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush, then governor of Texas. During that campaign, McCain took his “maverick” brand of politics to the national stage, making headlines by calling for campaign finance reform and opposing tax cuts for the wealthy.
In the summer of 2000, McCain underwent surgery to remove melanoma skin lesions from his temple and upper arm; he had another early-stage melanoma removed from his nose in 2003. But McCain’s health issues appeared to be of little concern by 2004, when he was elected to the Senate for a fourth term. Initially a steadfast advocate of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he later criticized the Bush administration’s conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorism suspects.
Eight years after his first presidential run, a strong victory in the New Hampshire primary propelled McCain to the head of the Republican field. He secured the nomination that March, and in August announced his choice of running mate: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. A social conservative, and the first woman ever nominated to a Republican national ticket, Palin generated initial enthusiasm, but her repeated gaffes and lack of experience ended up costing McCain in the general election. Despite his personal popularity, McCain’s identification with the Bush administration also hurt him with voters eager for change. Amid the nation’s mounting financial crisis, McCain lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois.
Later Senate Career
After his failed run for president, McCain won reelection to his seat in the Senate in 2010. During the later years of his Senate career, McCain worked on immigration reform with a bipartisan group of his colleagues. In 2014, when Republicans regained control of the Senate, McCain was tapped to head the Armed Services Committee.
Though McCain took the mainstream conservative line on most issues throughout his Senate career, he also diverged from his party on issues like campaign finance reform, climate change and immigration reform, working side by side with prominent Democrats like Ted Kennedy (before Kennedy’s death in 2009) on the latter issue.
In 2016, McCain won election to a sixth term in the Senate, at the age of 80. During that tumultuous campaign year, he was one of numerous members of his party to withdraw his endorsement of then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, after a 2005 recording surfaced of Trump bragging about making unwelcome sexual advances on women. Earlier, during the primary campaign, Trump had derided McCain’s war hero status, stating at a candidates’ forum in Iowa that “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Once Trump was elected, McCain supported the creation of a special committee to look into the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and possible collusion by the Trump campaign in those efforts. During President Trump’s first year in office, McCain was a frequent critic of the administration, particularly on issues of foreign policy and national security.
Illness and Final Months in the Senate
In mid-July 2017, after McCain underwent surgery to remove a blood clot over his left eye, it was announced that he was suffering from glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor with a grim prognosis. Less than a week after undergoing surgery, McCain returned to Washington to cast a key vote that kept alive Republican hopes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature piece of health care legislation. Despite his “yes” vote, McCain delivered a speech that fiercely criticized the existing Senate health care bill and the closed-door process that produced it, saying: “I will not vote for the bill as it is today.” McCain’s vote brought the total to 50-50, after which Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie in the Republicans’ favor.
But three days later, McCain lived up to his “maverick” reputation once again, joining two other Republicans (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) and all 43 Democrats in the Senate in voting against the so-called “skinny repeal” bill, shutting down the Republicans’ best chance for eliminating the Affordable Care Act. In explaining his “no” vote, McCain again criticized other Senate Republicans for crafting the bill out of public view, and called for Republicans and Democrats to put aside partisan loyalties and work on finding some common ground.
McCain’s family released a statement on August 24, 2018 that he would discontinue receiving treatment for his cancer, saying he had surpassed expectations for his survival but “the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict.”